Author: Delfino, Robert A
Date published: March 1, 2012
WTPPEL, John F, ed. The Ultimate Why Question: Why Is There Anything at All Rather than Nothing Whatsoever? Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, vol. 54. Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011. vii + 261 pp. Cloth, $59.95 - In this book of eleven chapters, ten philosophers and one theologian discuss the ultimate why question and the different ways it has been formulated and answered in Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary philosophy.
"Why is there something rather than nothing?" can be understood in different ways, but here I shall only focus on existential understandings of the question. Understood this way, it can be divided into three related questions. First, we can ask about all things excluding God (the "universe question"). Second, assuming we accept God as the answer to the first question, we can ask "Why did God create anything at all?" (the "Divine motivation question"). Third, we can direct the question at God Himself, asking "Why does God exist at all?" (the "God question").
The answer of Plotinus to the universe question, as Lloyd Gerson explains in chapter one, is the "One" from which all things emanate, not by free choice, but by necessity. Concerning the Divine motivation question, Gerson discusses the self-love of the One. He explains that Plotinus, drawing on Plato's Symposium, understands the work of love (eros) as a kind of birth or reproduction. Because love is always for the good, and because the One is the Good, the One necessarily loves itself and therefore necessarily reproduces. This answer, the "self-diffusion of the good," also influenced later thinkers.
The Muslim thinker Avicenna answers the universe question with God, understood as Necessary Being. But as Jon McGinnis notes in chapter three, for Avicenna, there is a sense in which this is only partially correct. Avicenna holds that "the existence of anything that comes to exist is preceded by the possibility of its existence" and he argues that the ultimate substrate of possibility is matter. Taken together, and given the fact of the universe, this implies that matter must have always existed, and thus not only God exists eternally. This leads to an interesting answer to the universe question: "because something is possible."
Aquinas also answers the universe question with God, but does not argue for the eternality of matter. For Aquinas, anything in which its act of existence is really distinct from its essence ultimately depends on an uncaused cause of existence, namely God, who is Being itself. Because he holds that no being can efficiently cause its own existence, a causal explanation for God's existence cannot be given. However, Wippel adapts Aquinas' distinction between a reason (ratio) and a cause in the Summa Contra Gentiles to address the God question. "Such a being [God] exists because its essence is identical with its act of existing. . . . While this is not to appeal to a cause to account for God's existence, it is, I would suggest, to offer an explanation or reason (ratio) for this." Aquinas used this distinction concerning the Divine motivation question, arguing that there is a reason, but not a cause, for why God wills things other than Himself. This reason is the divine goodness itself. While this is similar to the "self-diffusion of the good" answer raised earlier, Thomas interprets it as final causality, not efficient causality. That is, "God produces things other than himself so that they may participate in and reflect that goodness." This allows Thomas to affirm God's free choice to create, unlike Plotinus. And because there is a reason for God's willing other things, Thomas can avoid the position of blind divine voluntarism.
In chapter five, Tad M. Schmaltz discusses Descartes' view that there is a cause or reason for the existence of everything. Although Descartes is sometimes interpreted as holding that God is the cause of his own existence (the causa sui doctrine), Schmaltz argues that Descartes denies this. Instead, similarly to Aquinas, Descartes holds there is merely a reason, not an efficient cause, for God's existence. However, concerning the Divine motivation question, Schmaltz argues that Descartes' created truth doctrine (the view that God is an indifferent cause of created truth) ends up leaving him with "an ultimate efficient cause lacking a reason that explains why anything is even true of objects external to God."
Leibniz also holds that God is the answer to the universe question. In chapter six, Daniel O. Dahlstrom, who also discusses Heidegger's interpretation of Leibniz, treats Leibniz's attempt to account for God's free choice in creation despite the fact that God cannot choose anything but the best possible world. A discussion of Leibniz's distinction between moral and metaphysical necessity and of his principle of sufficient reason informs the chapter. Edward C. Halper, in chapter eight, also comments on Leibniz, discussing the role of God's perfection in Leibniz's answer to the Divine motivation question. However, the bulk of Helper's chapter concerns Hegel and his attempt to argue "that the whole of reality unfolds, through categoria! self-determination, from mdeterminate Being into a category of Being that somehow includes this entire unfolding within itself." The last modern philosopher discussed in this volume is Friedrich Schelling, who radicalizes God's freedom and uses that freedom as an answer to all three understandings of the ultimate why question. In chapter seven, Holger Zaborowski argues that "God, according to Schelling, is free; freedom (and not Being) is the Godhead's highest. This means that God was free to be or not to be, free to start a théogonie process or not to do so."
In chapter 9, Robert Cummings Neville argues that neither "fullness-ofbeing" conceptions of God nor God as conceived in process theology can be used to adequately answer the ultimate why question. Only the divine creative act of God as understood in the creation ex nihilo conception of God, he argues, can provide the answer. In chapter 10, Brian Martine gives a pragmatic critique of the ultimate why question, stressing that the question becomes problematic if divorced from the world of our practical experience. Finally, in chapter 11, Nicholas Rescher, after explaining the difference between axiological explanation and efficient causality, defends the principle of Optimality, "whatever possibility is for the best is ipso facto the possibility that is actualized," as the answer to two understandings of the ultimate why question. That is, the answer to "'Why is there anything at all?' and 'Why is the character of existence as it is?' ... [is] that 'this is for the best.'" Although not requiring theism, he argues that this axiological principle is congenial to theism. One wonders, however, if Rescher has given the principle too much "metaphysical equality" with God. For he says in a footnote: "In the order of beings . . . God has absolute primacy. In the order of principles . . . the Principle of Optimality is paramount. And neither order is subordinate to the other."
The only chapter that seems out of place in this book is chapter two. There Mary Sim discusses the ultimate why question as it appears in Chinese Philosophy, focusing on Daoists such as Laozi and Confucians/Neo-Confucians such as Mencius, Zhuxi, and Zhoudunyi. Although an excellent chapter, it is the only one that does not focus on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, with an excellent cast of scholars, Wippel, as usual, has produced a splendid book. In an age dominated by science, this book demonstrates the importance of metaphysics to perennial and profound questions about existence and meaning.-Robert A Delfino, St. John's University, New York.